Fem. ''Does Sex Bias Affect Science?''
"Does Sex Bias Affect Science?" by Karen Freeman, Post-Dispatch Science
Editor, St. Louis _Post-Dispatch_, 3/22/88, pp. 1E, 3E
Do we need a feminist perspective on science? Or is good science really
Those questions were posed by Sue V. Rosser when she spoke to several audiences
at the University of Missouri at St. Louis earlier this month. Her answer is
that science "cannot be gender-neutral as long as our society is not neutral on
these issues." Rosser, 41, is director of women's studies for all of the
campuses of the University of South Carolina and is an associate professor of
preventive medicine and community health at its Columbia campus.
Those who cherish a vision of science as a pure quest for truth may have
trouble swallowing the idea that sex bias can taint mainstream science. But
sex bias sometimes affects the direction of research as well as the
interpretation of data, Rosser contends.
She says that a feminist critique of science is also needed to draw attention
to these problems: slight historical attention to the contributions of women
to science, the inability of current teaching methods to interest many girls in
science, the small number of women scientists, and the salary gap between men
and women scientists, and the exclusion of females as research subjects in most
biological or medical research.
In the last century, Rosser gently reminds us, eminent scientists "proved" the
mental inferiority of women on the basis of cranium measurements. They fudged
their data -- either deliberately or inadvertently. (Cranium measurements are
no longer accepted as a valid way to assess intelligence.)
In current research, Rosser sees bias in a number of areas -- especially in
sociobiology, which looks for biological bases for human behavior. Without
condemning all research in sociobiology, Rosser says that sociobiologists often
"overgeneralize to conclusions not supported by their data".
A good example of that can be found in primatology, the study of primates,
Rosser says. Until the last couple of decades, few women were in the field.
Researchers focused their efforts on a couple of species -- those primates
whose behavior was thought to mimic human behavior, Rosser says.
The scientists described the primates' social structure as "harems", and they
paid particular attention to aggressive behavior by males. Then they turned
around and used those conclusions to argue that societies dominated by men had
a biological basis, Rosser says.
The recent influx of feminists into primatology has markedly changed the field,
Rosser says. One man's "harem" is a feminist's "single-male troop of animals"
-- an emotionally neutral description [though it still focuses on the *male*
-khs]. Rosser says that one feminist, Jane Lancaster, described a single-male
troop this way: "For a female, males are a resource in her environment which
she may use to further the survival of herself and her offspring. . . . Only
one male is necessary for a group of females if his only role is to impregnate
The women studying primates have expanded the field to include a wider variety
of species and have found a variety of social arrangements -- single-male
groups are far from universal, Rosser says. And they have studied other areas
overlooked by men, such as relationships between females.
The perspective brought by feminists to the field has made most primatologists,
male and female, more aware of the need to purge terms with emotional
connotations from their descriptions of animal behavior, raising the quality of
science, Rosser adds.
Both women and men in science need to be made aware of sex bias because women
scientists have been trained according to the male point of view, she contends.
"I was trained that way -- we all were."
Sex bias will continue to affect the way science is conducted and financed
until more women get into the field, Rosser says. But many women view the
field as inhospitable, she adds.
"I've asked some of my best students why they don't want to stay with science,
and they say they see it as too restrictive. They associate science with war
and with destroying the environment," Rosser said.
She cites a number of barriers to women in science: National Science
Foundation figures show that women in science earn 71 cents for each dollar
earned by men at the same professional level, and women may find it harder to
plug into professional networks and to collaborate with other scientists.
Current teaching methods tend to discourage girls from taking an interest in
science, Rosser says. She and a colleague are beginning a study of
seventh-grade textbooks used in South Carolina to find out if they contain sex
Although the cultural conditioning of women may discourage them from pursuing
such interests as science or math, science could benefit by accommodating some
of the positive traits identified with women, Rosser says.
If the tendency of women to focus on relationships were translated into a
feminist perspective on science, more attention would be paid to the social
consequences of research, Rosser predicts.
"If we're going to attract more women into the field, we may have to change
what we call science -- make it less cold and autonomous. There are positive
aspects of women's socialization that could be used to improve the way science
Rosser travels frequently to speak about feminist issues in science; this
semester, she will make 10 out-of-state trips. Next month, she will publish
her second book: "Feminism in the Science and Health-Career Professions:
Overcoming Resistance" (Pergamon Press).